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began to ask my parents, i began to look around me, i began to research and i found that there was all this, i don't know if this is a word, dimensionality to the story that's inside of me, that's all around me and has always been around me. so it's only natural that when i would pursue a story, just sit down and begin to write, one, it was natural that the characters would normally be japanese american and/or asian american and it would be natural that those events that happened that were seminal, this is one of the core seminal events of a community that shapes everything from that point on. generation after generation. they continued to sort of float up and become part of my story lines. even when sometimes i tried to not go in that direction, it would come up.
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and what i've even found is as i write characters now, for example in the play after the war, when i write characters that are not japanese american, that are african american, that are anglo american, as in this particular play, i have to be really really conscious of the fact that these characters, how they speak and the directness of their speech, in how aggressive or non-aggressive they are in certain situations, that i am seeing the world through that character's eyes and not my normal japanese american sort of perspective. because my point of view, i have come to know, is a specific one, how my characters and how i talk to the world and interact with the world is very different than how other people's might. so over the years i have learned how to both be aware of my own particular voice and how i have to also look beyond it if i want to write about other characters who are not part of a linage that has come from the
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internment camp experience. so in a long way of telling and responding to the question, it's simply there inside of me. just like part of your history. so it's easy for me to write about it. the key is that if i write about it now, both in terms of me as an artist and just for the interest of the audience, i have to find a new way to explore it. i have to find some way that affords new information to the people and a new approach for me so it doesn't get boring. i've written about this stuff for 30 years and if you are an artist, the point is not to keep -- for me, anyway -- to keep saying the same thing. the idea is to keep challenging yourself so you are always on sort of the edge of your own knowledge, you are always on the edge of your art form so that when you write and you write about a theme such as the internment camps and you have written about it before, you
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are always sort of exploring new ways to attack it, to approach it, so it keeps its relevancy to today and that it stays fresh and alive for the audience and for myself. so in after the war it deals with post internment but critical -- this is sort of where the origins of the story come from and you were asking about that earlier, chloe. one of the things i've been interested in in the last 10 years of my writing is how different communities interact with other communities, when they rub up against each other, just because that's so much of what being an american is this day and age. you know, as i would hear people telling stories about san francisco's japan town, i began to come across this whole theme of during the internment camps japanese americans were interned. in this vacuum in japan town,
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there was the fillmore district with african americans and a variety of other people and they moved into the community. and then japanese americans get out of camp and they come back to their neighborhood that has been populated and made into a different life and different world and what happens when those two communities overlap and intersect? whose place is it, whose home is it? who is an american? how do we sort of coexist in this post war period where the people from that community are by and large marginalized, yet you have this whole kind of other thing happening where it's -- the war has been won, this is like new things, television is happening, advertising, this whole advertising thing is happening. so you have these marginalized peoples and what happens, is it possible to develop a kind of at that moment a cross-cultural
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community? is it possible to have kind of a multi cultural community that emerged from that moment? and so, in particular, that's what i wanted to explore. and part of the back drop is there was this extraordinary jazz scene happening in that area. there's this wonderful book called fillmore harlem west and also there's several other books that are about that particular era. but that's all happening too, people like billie holiday, count basie, duke ellington, they were all playing in the fillmore district, bop city, plantation club, jack's tavern. that's another world that i was intrigued by and the fact that there were neisei jazz musicians. also the no no boys, which i'm not sure if you are aware of, but one of the story lines in
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the play is about the character called chet monkawa and he was what was known as a no no boy. at some point everyone in the internment camp was asked to do this questionnaire and there were two questions, question 27 and 28, which basically said you were foreswear allegiance to japan and the emperor and will swear allegiance to america and that you will serve in the armed forces. and for young neisei men in their late teens and 20's, if you signed that, by and large the sense was you could be drafted. and what came about was a certain amount of controversy over those two questions because a lot of things were floating around. one of the arguments, and that's my character, we're locked up. we're in prison and then i'm
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asked to sort of go out and sort of, like, defend this country while we're all locked up? on top of that, i'm supposed to, like, divorce myself from allegiance to a foreign emperor of a country i've never been to and i have to swear i am an american when i thought i was always an american? there was a great deal of controversy in the camps and difference of opinion. so my character is one of those individuals who signed no, no. that's a form of protest. and because of doing that, he is taken out of the camp that he's in and sent to tule lake where most of the troublemakers were sent. then he gets out of camp and he comes back to san francisco and what happened in the japanese american communities is that many of the young men signed yes yes. many of them went off to war and became part of the 442nd,
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the 100th battalion, the mis, military intelligence, and were extraordinarily heroic and died in very high casualty rates in europe. and so when chet comes back to san francisco, those people who signed no no were looked upon as cowards. they were traitors. they sat out the war where these other people died. everyone a friend, an uncle or somebody they knew who had died, lost an arm, or was killed in service. chet comes back and he is literally spit on by his own community. so my protagonist is someone who is an ex-jazz musician, who spent his adult years playing with black groups, he comes back to san francisco at a time when japan town is still sort
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of unraveling from this sort of who lives here, who doesn't live here, and he wants to find japan town again, find his own sort of home while at the same time around him his own community is looking at him as if he is a traitor. so as he says and used to say in the play, i'm on the outside of the outside. my country thinks i'm a criminal, my own community thinks i'm a traitor. how does he sort of find home for himself in america given that kind of a set up? so that's where the stories all kind of converged and my central character, where he came from and his journey and his -- his journey, what he has to go through during the course of the play. >> this central character, chet, is a very interesting one. i gather during the process there were some events that happened in contemporary news concerning a certain japanese
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american left tenant or aaron wataga >> yeah, lieutenant aaron wataga >> could you talk about how that story influenced your process and your writing of this play? . >> as i worked with the question of the no no boy, this whole thing with lieutenant aaron pataga who was a japanese american lieutenant who refused deployment to iraq. he said i'll serve anywhere else, but i refuse to go to iraq on the grounds that he believed it's unconstitutional. he is in the process of being court martialed, i think most recently there was something like a mistrial and i don't know if he's come up again. but what's interesting is that the lieutenant aaron wataga case as it played out in, quote, the ethnic newspapers, japanese american community, has brought about sort of what i think is a similar response to the no no boys in that he is being viewed not by all, but
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certainly by the military groups, the ones that were extraordinarily brave, the 442nd, by some of them as a traitor and as a coward. lieutenant aaron wataga should serve. and what's interesting is, again, it's the same type of thing. it's been a very devicive split in the community. he is an individual who embraces being japanese american who chooses to refuse deployment on the grounds that it's not constitutional. he is inordinately bright and articulate and a poster boy for being sort of the u.s. soldier but he believes, after talking to soldiers coming back, that it's wrong. it's very similar to my central character, chet. as this went on in contemporary news it fed on where my central
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character became bolstered. that's what happens when you are writing a play. over a period of 3 1/2, 4 years things happen in your personal life and in the world around you that continue to sort of feed into the play. so the no no boy aspect, i just gave him a speech a couple days ago where he says, because i really want to bring up the issue and make it relevant to contemporary times. he says, doesn't anybody care what happened? they took away our rights. doesn't anybody care? is the constitution just a piece of paper that means nothing that the president can sign another piece of paper and then we lose our citizenship and they can do whatever the hell they wanted to us? it's wrong, it was wrong then, it was wrong now and i don't care what kind of questionnaire it is, i'll sign it no no and i'll yell it at the president, i'll yell it at roosevelt, i'll yell it at general dewitt and it matters. it has to matter. and to me it's the speech i
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gave him was in part all just drawn from what's happening i think in the country right now in relationship to the war, who is considered patriotic, who is considered a traitor, and the point of a play to me is that it isn't just a museum piece, that in fact it does have relevancy right now and that it does kind of spark a certain amount of controversy in relationship to what goes on now. so that's how things that are happening in one's life feed into it. other things feed into it, too, like my wife and i have been trying to build this house in the berkeley hills for about 5 years so all of that also kind of feeds into the play even though it may not surface in the way the characters are building a house, but it may be something about money that comes up in the play but
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actually was drawn from our financial struggles trying to build this house in the berkley hills. but it also sort of shows you how real life intrudes into your work and how we either can listen to it and put it into it or try to ignore it. i usually choose to sort of put everything that's going on around me in the world when i'm reading what i find intellectually curious into the work, no matter what the story is. >> so let's turn our attention a little bit to these characters you have created, 9, i think, characters, all very extremely different from different backgrounds. you spoke just now about wanting to find an authentic voice for each of them and working from the inside out. so how do you go about creating specific voices for a jewish russian character by way of yokohama, for an african american character, for all these different characters? i know you worked with specific
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actors. did they help at all? what was the process there? . >> absolutely. in terms of the african american characters, i wrote this piece initially for the act core company and i thought it would be a great challenge to actually write a play for the core company and the core company has two african american characters and i had tailored two of the characters for steven anthony jones and gregry wallace. it's interesting that gregory wallace, an african american man, was supposed to play mr. oge, an excentric neisei who likes literature. i thought it would be an interesting thing to do. but after a while we did a reading and we realized as good an actor as gregory is, it was pushing his limits for him to
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play a japanese american character in the late 40's. >> i imagine him as being much older. >> in the course of writing the play and using various actors, he became younger. this chinese actor is more like a character in his mid to late 30's, excentric, a career bachelor who is into russian literature and who fashions himself kind of patterned after the japanese artists of the 30's and 40's. he has round sort of glasses and a braid. but getting back to the question of creating characters, for example african american characters, i'm also caution -- i had written another play called johann that was about an african american gi and a japanese wife that got
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married in post war japan. i wrote that play 20 years ago. i wouldn't do it for about 8 years or so because i just didn't feel comfortable about being a japanese american writing an african american character. you have to think about, too, this whole idea of political correctness has both an up side and a very bad down side. one of those is people tend to be very cautious and not want to try things like that. i eventually through my relationship with danny glover pulled it out of my drawers -- out of the drawer, desk drawer, and read it and danny was instrumental in saying, let's do this. let's just do this. but, again, it was me working with some african american actors and i actually had it
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vetted by august wilson, read it and checked it out for me and there's another fellow who wrote soldier's story, charles fuller, took a look at it for me. i wanted to make sure my bases were covered. but this new play, what i did was, i feel comfortable writing the characters, but you are never sure. one thing that happened was steven anthony jones helped me a great deal with the african american character. we took it to sundance and what happens when you go to sundance is you bring some actors and some are given to you. i hadn't worked with the actors who we teamed up with at sundance, both excellent actors but people we didn't know so we didn't have a working relationship. there were moments where we worked where i could tell that the fellow, in particular, wasn't happy with his character
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because i had him standing there while the african american character went on and on. finally he said, phillip, i would not stand there and take that crap. the moment he opened his mouth, i would say stop. okay. so it wasn't contentious but what it was that area of discomfort. racial politics are very tricky this day and age and if you want to really address certain things, you have to go to that area of discomfort and you have to go to the area beyond discomfort of being slightly offensive of each other. as long as you are in a context of trust and say this is an art piece we are working on, we are working for the truth of the characters, at sundance i worked with two, in terms of the african american actors, two generous actors who were willing to, with myself, kind of spar a bit to make sure that
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what we ended up with was a truthful character and a truthful relationship between the african americans and the asian american characters and that it was one in which both were speaking truth to truth. you know, one character wasn't just a sounding board for the other, that in fact truth talking to truth, right versus right. that's difficult to construct and it's difficult to sort of do if you want to get into what i call in house versus outhouse talk. in every community you have what goes on inside your own community versus outside of it. someone like charles barkley who will say in house stuff and embarrass other african
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americans. what i try to do is write what is normally said inside that world because that's where you get into the juicy stuff. that's where the african americans were elevated at sundance and it's only because i've worked with these actors and i continue to work with african american actors who give me a lot of feedback on their characters. women always do this to me, too. there was one workshop we did, an actress, african american actress, michelle shay, said to me, phillip, an african american woman would protect her man's manhood. there's this interracial romance that happens, black man, white woman, and how this is all viewed. she said how she felt her character had to really stand up to protect her man and as a
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consequence it became part of the play. the african american woman will not tell earl that his wife has actually left him already and run off with another man. she doesn't tell him that because she's trying to protect his manhood. those are things i think if you are a smart playwright, you really take advantage of your very smart actors and your very smart directors. again, this thing where it's always coming down it ego. at sundance, in every rehearsal process, i like being part of a very generous workshop. if you were in there you would say, wow, it's pretty free-wheeling. for example, you have 9 characters, 9 story lines that all are trying to be pieced together so they all are
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introduced, they all intertwine and at the end they are all resolved in some form or fashion. it's a delicate architecture. as we were in rehearsal process, i really rely on actors to kind of say at some point you have tweaked something here, but my character on this part of act 2 no longer is in the right place. so we have to pay attention to that. so in the rehearsal process, it's very democratic up to a point. i talked to cary recently, said i think it got to a point there's so much stuff that i have to keep in my point i need to sort of cull it down a little bit and make it more specific because the point is, everything is in my head and if i'm throwing stuff out and putting stuff in, whatever comes out or goes in has to stay part of this architectural plan that i have in my head so that it always stays
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structurally sound. so that's been an interesting process and a good one. we're just in the stage now where i think we're at the end of our second week. i didn't think i'd be doing as much rewriting as i have. i've done a tremendous amount of rewriting and we've actually reordered scenes and normally if you are doing that, it means you are in trouble. it's what i call chasing the play. if you are chasing the play, trying to find its story, that's not a good thing. i've gone through that and it's really horrific because you can't find the story, you have a bunch of characters and a bunch of plot points but you can't find it so what you do is keep writing different things and try to find the ending and make it end up right. that's simply hellish. that is awful. i'm pretty careful now that by the time i go into rehearsals the play is usually done. but it's interesting is i thought this play was done done
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and it's turned out to be quite plastic still in the best possible sense, literally to take a scene from act 2 and put it into act 1, did that, and to -- just a lot of interesting things are still happening. but it's making the play better in a very concrete way. it feels very different. everything is about making the play tighter, getting of any kind of excess stuff. you really have to kill your darlings in that you have all this great dialogue that i wrote maybe 3 1/2 years ago that just has to get basically thrown and cut off and taken away because in the end it really is -- less is more and if you can make a scene sort of happen with less speaking, it's better. in fact, we just did one today where we now have the kind of whole play ending with --
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you'll see, when you see the play, you'll see if we still have it. we have chet playing his horn, just playing his horn, kind of a bluesy jazz thing. that's supposed to speak to where else at that moment at the end of the play. as i watched it, i thought of some stuff we cut before. he used to say simple things. i come into your house, you come into mine. trust, that's all, just a little trust. i thought that would work really well. but i sort of brought it up and everyone was saying, no, if -- the music seems to say it all. i thought, well, that's right. if the music can say it without any words, then that's what we should go with. so that's a moment where hopefully if you have lined everything up correctly, at that moment that chet pulls out his or not after he's a blow out with earl and everyone, he
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pulls out this horn and it's the first time he plays, it's whatever he feels at that moment and sums up where he's at at the end of the play. that's what we tried today. the tricky thing is it's a built of a stretch of reality. ever have a character in theater ever pick up a horn and play who is not a horn player? unless you do it right, it always looks phony. i had originally scripted the play so that we wouldn't have that problem. i thought i'd come up with a clever sort of solution and that is his love interest, lillian, goes and gets the 78 and plays it and while she's listening to it, chet has his horn for the first time, kind of fingers it but he doesn't actually play it. yet we hear him playing 5 years
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earlier on the record. it's a way of hearing him without the mime playing. anthony brown, who is a composer, is going to get a horn player to play something that is good but it's also someone who hasn't played in a while so it's a bit rusty. that's kind of tricky, but it had to be that because it couldn't be anything too complicated. he couldn't come up with this extraordinary riff set that made everyone kind of stand up and cheer. it had to be this sort of ragedy and yet truthful and sum up everything that's happened in the course of the play. but that's anthony brown's problem, not mine. >> so, anyway, i guess we should open this out to everyone out here. i'm sure you've got some questions that you'd like to ask phillip, so i'll be happy to take questions from the floor. over there in the red. >> can you explain again why the no no boys were rejected by
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the japanese community? i can understand if they said that they did not want to -- if they answered no no that the caucasian community would reject them, but i'm not sure where the japanese community rejected them. i felt like they were making a stand for the community. >> i think what's happened in the last 15 or 20 years as we've looked back on history and the community has looked back on it, it's able it look at these characters in a different light, through a different lens. they are seen now in people who in their own ways made heroic choices. at the time, again, i didn't live through it, but my sense is in having talked to people, the 422nd battalion, these people went out and they were killed in very high rates. these were yo

December 28, 2012 12:30am-1:00am PST

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